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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Contending with the Elements

Contending with the Elements.

At this stage of the offensive, when the enemy had been shaken by a series of shattering blows which seriously weakened his power of resistance, leaving him little time or opportunity to recover himself, a continuance of fine weather would have meant much to the Allied cause. But the weather broke at the end of September, and almost the whole of October saw a succession of drenching rains. It was a period of unremitting, hard, physical toil for all ranks. It had again become necessary to push the New Zealand batteries forward, and the task of dragging them over the almost non-existent roads, and across page 140the trackless waste of mud to their assigned positions, became well-nigh hopeless. On September 29th batteries of the 1st and 2nd Brigades commenced preparing new positions which had been reconnoitred on the outskirts of Flers, to the west and north-west. On this occasion the 18-pr. batteries of the 2nd Brigade resumed their formation as four-gun batteries. The 6th (howitzer) Battery selected a position near High Wood. Work was very difficult owing to the rain and mud; but six guns and two howitzers were placed in new positions shortly after dark, and the remainder were got up about the same time on the night of the 30th. The 2nd Battery's position was shelled very heavily from dusk onwards.

Owing to the fall of the ground some of the batteries could be only partly concealed from the view of the enemy, and as a result they suffered heavily during the whole of the time they remained in these positions. For the same reason ammunition or stores could be brought up only under cover of darkness or in wet and misty weather. The only avenue of approach to Flers and the vicinity for wheeled traffic was by way of the road that ran down from Longueval, and this was under observation during the day. The 3rd and 4th Brigades had an alternative pack route past the east corner of Delville Wood, and similar routes were later reconnoitred and used west of the Flers road. This road had long since been rutted out of recognition, was badly pitted by shell holes, and at night when it was always thick with traffic the enemy shelled it more heavily than during the day. But picking a way across country through the maze of shell-holes and old trenches, following a track on which the horses floundered up to their bellies in the mud, was infinitely worse. It was a physical impossibility to take up stores or ammunition in the limbers; wheeled traffic being out of the question, everything had to be packed. There was no equipment on issue for packing, but the ammunition was carried on each side of the saddle in canvas bags, sandbags, or shell baskets which were salved on the battlefields. The horses suffered grievously from overwork, insufficient food and lack of shelter, some of them becoming so gaunt and weak that when they fell into a shell-hole they had not the requisite strength to drag themselves out, page 141and died where they lay. Many of the horses had been in the hands of the same drivers since leaving New Zealand, and were treated with a consideration amounting to affection, being cared for, indeed, more than the men cared for themselves. Some that had seen service on Gallipoli, and had even been wounded, were rightly regarded as seasoned old veterans, sharers in the common misfortunes of war, and were, therefore, the objects of especial solicitude; while the loss of any of them on the battle-field was an occasion for mourning. One such well-known veteran was "Finnigan," an R.N.Z.A. horse, brought from New Zealand, that trod on a bomb on the road near Flers. Although very severely wounded, he gamely took his load three miles to its destination, on reaching which he dropped and died. This sentimental affection of a driver for his horses was worthy of encouragement on more than humane grounds, as the great wastage in horses which took place during such periods as the fighting on the Somme, was found to be considerably reduced in divisions where "horse-mastership" was something more than a name.

From the time in September when the wet weather set in, the conditions at the waggon lines grew steadily worse: over-head cover of any description was, of course, out of the question. Horse lines became quagmires, where the lean and jaded beasts stood up to their hocks in the mud; and batteries, with their reduced strength at the waggon lines, constantly employed packing ammunition, were unable to do anything to improve the position. Watering facilities were uniformly bad, also, and it was no uncommon experience for the horses of a unit to be led back to the lines without having watered, after a long and fruitless wait at the crowded troughs.

Following on local advances which had been made during the last days of September, between Gueudecourt and Courcelette, the enemy had fallen back on his defences running in front of Eaucourt l'Abbaye and Le Sars, and on the afternoon of October 1st an attack was launched against Eaucourt l'Abbaye and the defences to the east and west of it, the total front involved in the attack being about 3000 yards. From 7 a.m. on the 1st of October the trenches to be attacked by the page 142New Zealand infantry were bombarded by batteries of the 1st and 2nd Brigades, while at 2 p.m. certain other batteries shelled the ground over which the 47th Division of the 3rd Corps was to advance in its attack on Eaucourt l'Abbaye. At 3.15 p.m. an intense barrage was laid down, and behind its protection the New Zealand Infantry advanced to the attack. Heavy fighting was experienced, but by evening all the objectives had been reached. The attempt to take Eaucourt l'Abbaye was not successful; but a hold was obtained on the outskirts of the village, and by the early morning of October 4th its capture was complete. Oil projectors were used as part of the preparation for this advance, and when the infantry occupied the enemy trenches they found tragic evidence of their effectiveness.

Sections of the 3rd Brigade batteries went forward after dark on October 1st, to positions on the west of Flers, from where they were to support further advances which had been planned to embrace Ligny-Thilloy and le Barque. The positions were in most cases fairly exposed, and it was therefore deemed advisable to move under cover of darkness, and have the guns dug in and concealed as securely as possible before dawn. On the way up from the old positions in Devil's Gully some of the guns were delayed by heavy shelling on the Flers road, and when they left the road and struck across country the guide, unfamiliar with the route, and doubtless confused by the shelling, lost his way in the inky darkness. Precious time was lost in locating the positions, and by the time they had been reached by the joint efforts of the sorely tried horses and the gunners working with drag ropes and shovels the night was well advanced. The task of digging the pits in the heavy clay was attacked with feverish energy, and the guns were run into the pits as the first streaks of dawn appeared. Canvas camouflage screens were hurriedly thrown over the pits, and the effect was completed by a few shovelfuls of earth and weeds, after which the tired gunners had the satisfaction of seeing a German aeroplane fly all unsuspecting over their heads.

The New Zealand Division, less artillery, was withdrawn from the line on the night of the 3rd-4th October, on relief by the 41st Division. The Artillery remained in the line, all four brigades page 143being attached to the 21st Divisional Artillery. On this occasion the following message was received by the Divison from General Sir H. S. Rawlinson, Commanding the Fourth Army:—

"I desire to express to all ranks of the New Zealand Division my hearty congratulations on the excellent work they have done during the battle of the Somme.

"On three successive occasions (15th and 25th September and 1st October), they attacked the hostile positions with the greatest gallantry and vigour, capturing in each attack every objective that had been allotted to them. More than this, they gained possession of, and held, several strong points in advance, and beyond the furthest objectives that had been allotted to them.

"The endurance and fine fighting spirit of the Division has been beyond praise, and their success in the Flers neighbourhood will rank high amongst the best achievements of the British Army.

"The control and direction of the Division during these operations have been conducted with skill and precision, whilst the Artillery support in establishing the barrage, and defeating counter-attacks has been in every way most effective.

"It is a matter of regret to me that this fine Division is leaving the Fourth Army, and I trust that on some future occasion it may again be my good fortune to find them under my command."

October was a bad month for the batteries. It rained almost incessantly; the batteries were heavily shelled in their advanced and exposed positions and lost a great many of their personnel; and for the drivers and the men of the Ammunition Column, the journey to the guns was a nightly struggle against the elements; while since the departure of the rest of the Division the rations had become so meagre and unvaried as to warrant the making of representations on the subject, after which there was an improvement. The enemy gunners harried the pack columns on the roads, and used their heavy guns unsparingly in the effort to destroy battery positions. With the absolute shortage of material and labour, nothing but splinter-proof shelters could be built at the most, and every battery suffered page 144losses in guns and men, direct hits on the pits being suffered very frequently. In the 3rd Battery three direct hits were obtained on pits on October 3rd; and two days later, when the enemy shelled the area all day with 5.9in. and 8in. howitzers, a big shell landed on one pit, and destroyed the gun and ammunition, and killed the whole detachment. The 15th Battery had an ammunition dump exploded and lost one officer, Lieut. Watson, and four other ranks killed, as well as a number wounded. The explosion blew in the back of one of the gun pits, and set fire to the ammunition charges stored beside the gun, and a gunner, who had been caught by the falling beams, was in imminent danger of being burnt to death, until a rescue party extricated him after some minutes' work close to the burning ammunition. The leader of this party was, unfortunately, himself killed in action a few days later. On October 3rd there was an occurrence of equal gravity in the 6th Battery, when an explosion took place as the result of a premature at the mouth of the gun in No. 2 pit, and Captain G. E. Daniell, Second-Lieutenant E. M. Brookes, and four other ranks were killed and three severely wounded. On the death of Captain Daniell, command of the battery was assumed by Captain W. H. Johnston.

The 2nd Battery's new position was systematically shelled for three or four days at the opening of the month, and it was decided to move the battery in sections. One section was attached to the 5th Battery, and the other came under the command of the O.C. 9th Battery, and was dug in 500 yards north of that battery's position.

Although the conditions prevailing during October made the launching of an offensive on a big scale impossible, it was a month of hard fighting, in which the infantry were almost crippled from the outset by the difficulties under which they fought, and the results in consequence were of little value. On October 7th the Fourth Army attacked again from Les Bœufs to Destremont Farm, near Le Sars. Le Sars itself was captured and some progress was made east of Gueudecourt. On the front covered by the New Zealand batteries the attack was not successful. The 1st Brigade, to which "X" Battery, R.H.A., page break page break
A Pack Column going forward to the Guns At Passchendaele [Offical Photo

A Pack Column going forward to the Guns At Passchendaele [Offical Photo

page break
Lieut.-Colonel R. S McQuarrie, D.S.O., M.C

Lieut.-Colonel R. S McQuarrie, D.S.O., M.C

page break page 145had been attached, and the 4th Brigade assisted in the creeping barrage behind which the men of the 41st Division were to advance, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades firing in the stationary barrage. The bombardment commenced at 3.15 p.m. on October the 6th, and continued until 5.15 p.m., when the rate of fire was reduced. At 7.45 a.m. next morning the bombardment quickened up again, and kept steadily on until zero hour, 1.45 p.m. The enemy may not have been conscious of the impending assault, but he certainly made a strong effort to neutralise the fire of batteries by heavily shelling them with lethal and lachrymatory gas, in the hour before dawn. Fortunately a strong sou 'westerly breeze minimised the effect of the gas, but later on the positions were "crumped" with 5.9's, and a lot of casualties were caused, particularly in the 15th Battery, where five other ranks were killed and several wounded with one shell. The 9th Battery, which had had a gun completely destroyed during the previous afternoon, had two guns buried at zero hour. They were, fortunately, not badly damaged, and in ten minutes' time the pits were cleared and the guns were in action again.

Altogether the advantages gained in this attack were somewhat disappointing, and it was in consequence decided to wait until weather conditions permitted of a further advance to be preceded by an ample artillery preparation. The enemy had, brought up fresh troops on the front, and it was feared that he might use these in an attempt to win back some of the ground which had been wrested from him at such great effort. Certain arrangements of a defensive nature were accordingly made to render abortive such an attempt on his part. Enemy country was, if possible, kept under more constant observation from artillery observation posts, and forward communications were made more complete, and kept in good working order. At the batteries an effort was made to improve the overhead cover, and an order was issued by the 21st Divisional Artillery Headquarters to bring the reserve of ammunition at the guns up to 1000 rounds per gun.

On October 15th one section each of the 11th and 13th Batteries went forward from Devil's Valley, and occupied positions east of Flers which had been reconnoitred the previous page 146day, with the object of enfilading Gird Trench and Support Trench. A week later these sections were handed over, complete, to the 14th Battery, and the 11th and 13th Batteries each took over a section of the 14th Battery's guns in Devil's Valley. These guns the two batteries moved forward to their advanced positions west of Flers.

Further attacks were attempted on the 12th and 18th October, but the gains achieved were of no moment; the weather continued execrable, and as the Commander-in-Chief phrased it in his official despatch, "the moment for decisive action was rapidly passing away." In addition, the enemy was profiting by past experience; he made a better tactical use of his machine guns, his most potent weapon of defence; and the weather continued to aid him. In preparation for the attack on the 12th the guns commenced to bombard the enemy's defences at 7 a.m. on the previous day, and at quarter past three the same afternoon they opened a Chinese barrage, which, as the name might suggest, reverses the usual procedure by creeping back instead of forward. The enemy evidently read this as the preliminary to an attack, for he instantly replied with a furious barrage, even shelling his own line in his flurry; and at the same time his counter-battery guns commenced to shell the New Zealand batteries. When the attack really was launched at 2.5 p.m. on the following day, innumerable red rockets sent up all along the German line, brought the hostile barrage down five minutes after zero. His fire was, moreover, somewhat below normal, due to the shelling of his batteries by the heavy artillery, and gas-shelling by the 4.5in. howitzers.

The ensuing days were spent in thoroughly preparing the ground for the attack on October 18th, in which the objectives were very little different from those that had been set on the 12th, so far at any rate as the immediate front covered by the New Zealand batteries was concerned.

In addition to the shooting which usually paved the way for an attack, this preparation took the form of special bombardments, in conjunction with the heavy artillery, of enemy trenches and sunken roads, and other points which were likely to prove dangerous obstacles to the advance of the infantry. This page 147went on uninterruptedly for several days, notwithstanding the persistent and heavy counter-shelling of battery areas. Despite this series of destructive bombardments, and the regular and well-timed barrage which preceded the infantry, the attack on this portion of the front yielded little better results than that which had preceded it six days earlier.

Throughout this period the work of the batteries had been carried on under an almost continual and destructive fire from the enemy heavy guns; but although casualties had been heavy and a great number of guns had been destroyed or put out of action, the various tasks assigned to the brigades in the preparation and support for infantry operations had been faithfully carried out, though necessarily with a reduced number of guns. When a battery was not engaged on any task of immediate importance the gunners were usually withdrawn from the pits if the positions were being very heavily shelled; but when firing in a barrage, on S.O.S., or any other task of vital importance, there was no question of "cease fire" or withdrawal, and it was on such occasions that most of the casualties were suffered at the guns. On October 10th, the 11th Battery had been forced to withdraw its advanced section, after having had one gun buried and the other completely destroyed. On the 13th, the 1st Battery had had a gun and several hundred rounds of ammunition destroyed; and on the following day several batteries had been deluged with gas shells. The detachments had to wear their gas helmets for several hours, and amongst other casualties suffered, Captain F. E. Cooke, 5th Battery, had been killed. The 1st Brigade, which was grouped with the 2nd Brigade, under the orders of the C.R.A. 12th Division as from the 16th of the month, had had its headquarters blown out the previous day by 8in. shells, and had to seek fresh quarters.

As instancing the desperate nature of these efforts to annihilate the batteries, of which each brigade had its experience almost every day, the 5th Battery was shelled for three days, the shelling on the 20th lasting over ten hours and two guns being put out of action. The shelling became so intense that the position had to be temporairly evacuated, and on the 21st Captain L. V. Hulbert, Captain N. F. S. Hitchcock, brigade page 148medical officer, and Lieutenant S.W. Morton were killed outright by the same shell.

On the night of the 21st, the sections of the 3rd Brigade which still remained in Devil's Gully, where they also had been subject to frequent periods of shelling, joined the section which had been for some time near Flers, the guns going into pits which had been prepared for them. Most of the 18-prs. struggled through the mire, but the two howitzers of the 4th Battery got badly bogged after crossing the Flers Road, and fresh teams were required to complete the journey the following night.

A feeling of general satisfaction was experienced when word was at last sent out that a relief was impending by the batteries of the 1st Australian Divisional Artillery; but such is deferred hope that many of the men refused to believe the good news until they had actually seen the advance detachments of the relieving Australians, the reports of whose presence at the waggon lines they had at first regarded as a fable. To relieve the detachments was one thing, but to get the guns in and out was another in the unbelievable condition into which the roads had fallen. However, with treble teams, and by aid of much hard endeavour a section was got up to most battery positions on the night of the 25th. The following day, providentially enough, dawned dull and misty, so that it was possible to take teams up the Flers road, and carry on in daylight with the work of extricating some of the guns and limbers that had sunk deep in the mud the night before. After viewing the condition of the roads, brigade commanders agreed to exchange guns where it was impossible to get the New Zealand guns out. The 1st Battery, having no guns at their position, took four guns to Flers with ten-horse teams, under cover of the fog, and later on these were taken to the position in Abbey Road. In the case of the 14th Battery it was quite impossible to get the guns out, and the battery therefore exchanged guns with the 24th Australian Battery. The relief was finally completed about 9 o'clock on the night of the 26th, though the 4th Battery had to send a team back from Bonnay a couple of days later to take out one of their howitzers which had been left very badly bogged page 149near the Flers road—but not so badly as to have prevented some enterprising person from removing a good many of the fittings in the meantime! Detachments spent the night at the waggon lines, and in the early morning of the 27th October batteries made their brief preparations for the road, and marched out for their billeting areas.

Thus ended one of the hardest periods of prolonged fighting in which the Divisional Artillery were ever engaged in the whole course of the war. For fifty-two days, from September 5th to October 27th, the guns had been continuously in the firing line without rest or respite of any description whatsoever; and such had been the nature of the fighting, and the length of the casualty lists, that most of the officers and many of the gunners had spent the whole period at the gun positions. It constituted at once a supreme test of efficiency, and a most severe trial of endurance, taxing the men's physical strength to the very fibre. In the positions which were first occupied there was not much to do in the nature of constructive work, as the batteries simply walked into established positions, but when they advanced after the attack on September 15th, and when they finally went forward to near Flers, the positions had to be completely made; had to be made in spite of the nature of the ground, riven by shell-fire, and then water-logged by the rains; and in spite of the fact, also, that sandbags and timber were practically unprocurable from the usual sources. In the second positions it was found that casualties were minimised by digging deep narrow trenches in rear of the gun-pits in which the personnel could take shelter from the flying splinters. In these positions, also, some form of protection from prematures from batteries in rear was imperative. The concentration of artillery along this portion of the British front was so great that it was a matter of difficulty to find positions for them all. Wherever the country offered any measure of concealment they were massed in row upon row, and at night when they all sprang into concerted action, or opened up in response to an S.O.S. from the infantry, the eye was bewildered by the myriad flickerings of the field guns and the vivid flashes from the heavy guns massed behind them.

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After the last move forward a great deal of material was salvaged from the German trenches and dugouts in the neighbourhood, and used in providing overhead cover and weather-proof shelters for the ammunition. The heavy timber was also used for gun platforms, without which the guns became unsteady and the shooting less accurate. The almost incessant hostile shelling was responsible for a tremendous number of casualties in all ranks, and entailed also a great deal more work in digging out buried guns and rebuilding positions. The labour at the guns was increased by the fact that in wet weather almost every round fired had to be carefully cleaned by hand. Where it was possible the men at the guns were relieved occasionally by detachments from the waggon lines, but as the casualties became heavy this was found more difficult. The large batch of reinforcements which arrived from the Artillery Reserve Depôt in England, late in September, relieved the situation to a certain extent, but within a week or two the constant toll of casualties had again seriously reduced the strength of every battery.

The 3rd Battery suffered a higher percentage of casualties than any other unit in the Divisional Artillery; the total of killed and wounded being about eighty, including seven officers. As the number at the guns was normally about forty, this meant that the entire gun strength was casualtied twice over. Captain C. V. Leeming, who commanded the battery when it went into the Somme fighting, was wounded on September 30th, and Captain C. Carrington, who subsequently assumed command of the battery, was himself fatally wounded on October 8th. For the remainder of the fighting on the Somme the Battery was commanded by Lieutenant O. Opie.

The strain of the continuous firing was found to be very severe on the guns, and in addition to the number that were destroyed or put out of action by hostile shell fire, guns had constantly to be sent to the Ordnance Workshops for repairs, especially after any periods of particular activity. Buffer springs were a constant source of trouble, and as batteries did not carry spare springs, which they could have fitted themselves, a gun would have to be sent to Ordnance to have the springs renewed, and so be out of the firing line for three or four days.

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Divisional Ammunition Column and battery drivers had an unenviable time; on the terrible roads nearly all night and every night with jaded horses that had reached the point of exhaustion, they had to squeeze through the traffic blocks, run the gauntlet of the shelling, and by some sixth sense find their way across the black waste of shell-holes and broken trenches to their own particular battery. Often they made two and sometimes three trips from more or less forward dumps to which they carted ammunition by waggon in the daytime. From the time the New Zealand Infantry left the Somme rumours were constantly circulated that the artillery were about to the relieved; but the dashing of these successive hopes in no way deterred the men, who retained their cheerful spirits until at last thy marched out muddy, verminous, and a good deal ragged, but quite satisfied.